MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly, with a confession. I have never read a self-help book. I missed "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," skipped "The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People" - not that I couldn't use the help. But I was always a little skeptical. If these books really worked, why do we need so many of them? Couldn't we all just read one and have our lives completely sorted?
Well, it turns out our next guest Marianne Power was similarly skeptical. But she also says she found herself at the age of 36 convinced her life was in a rut and not quite sure how to climb out of it. So she embarked on a project - read one self-help book a month for one full year, 12 books total. The result is her own book "Help Me!: One Woman's Quest To Find Out If Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life." Marianne Power joins me now. Welcome.
MARIANNE POWER: Thank you.
KELLY: So you set some rules for yourself here, we should let people know. Rule number one, you can't just read the books. You actually were going to follow their advice to the letter.
KELLY: How far did you take that?
POWER: I took it very, very far. So the first book I followed was a self-help classic called "Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway."
POWER: That says you should do something scary every day. So I created a list of scary things to do, and I...
KELLY: Yeah, what was your list?
POWER: Well, stand-up comedy was the most terrifying thing I could think of doing. I did that. I jumped out of a plane. I did naked modeling for an art class. And then there was also kind of smaller things - opening bank statements. So, yeah, it was a cross-section. By the end of that month, I'd done most scary things in 30 days than I'd done in the 30 years beforehand.
KELLY: And did it work? Did you feel empowered...
POWER: I did.
KELLY: ...And self-confident at the end of it?
POWER: I was exhausted.
POWER: I was an adrenalized nutcase. But there's a phrase I read somewhere that our fear isn't that life is short. It's that we don't feel alive when we live it. And I felt very, very alive in that month.
KELLY: What was your favorite book of the twelve that you tackled? Which one was going to stick with you?
POWER: Oh, I loved "The Power Of Now." It's written by Eckhart Tolle. And Eckhart Tolle says that when we see people walking down the street talking to themselves, you know, we think they're a bit mad. But actually we're all doing that to ourselves all the time. We all have this voice in our head that's narrating what's happening. And it's quite often very critical. And it's, you know, beating yourself up for something you've done in the past, or it's worrying about what's going to happen in the future. And as a result, you miss the only thing that is ever real, according to Eckhart Tolle, and that's now. He asks, in any given moment, to ask yourself, do I have a problem right now, right here? And the answer is almost always no. So I found that book very helpful.
KELLY: It sounds as though your mom was a great reality check on this project.
POWER: She was.
KELLY: There was a scene...
POWER: She was everyone's favorite character, my Irish mother.
KELLY: Was she really?
POWER: Yeah, the queen of one-liners.
KELLY: That's annoying. You write your own...
POWER: Very annoying.
KELLY: ...Book, and your mother is the heroine.
KELLY: She does have a knack for for puncturing some of this stuff.
POWER: Doesn't she?
KELLY: There was one moment that I love where you're trying to explain to her, I guess, that you were working on replacing your usual negative thought loop with positive thoughts. And she says, oh, so you mean you're deluding yourself?
POWER: Yeah, exactly.
KELLY: And then - and this is what I want to ask you about - she said, you're not going to go all American, are you? I mean, do you think there is something to that - the American can-do attitude as opposed to...
POWER: I love it.
KELLY: I know the cliche - but the stiff upper lip of...
POWER: Exactly. Yeah. And I think that's the difference. And I absolutely love the can-do attitude. It's such energy and spirit and optimism. And I find that atonic.
KELLY: So you start with this very clear idea - 12 books, 12 months. You're gonna get it done. But then as often happens, life intervenes, and you got somewhat sidetracked and zigged and zagged. And you ended up doing this for 16 months, is that right?
KELLY: And also - tell me if I'm wrong - but it seems like going on a bit of a deeper emotional dive than maybe you originally set out to do.
POWER: Yeah, absolutely. I wasn't expecting that. I didn't - I just thought it was a very clever idea, and it would make me feel better, you know, in the way that you can feel better if you had a week of early nights, or you lose a few pounds. You know, I didn't really understand that actually I was taking myself apart in some ways. Yeah. As I got further and further into it, it was becoming a much deeper undertaking than I understood.
KELLY: You introduce us to a lot of the characters who you met along this journey, one of whom was a London cabbie.
KELLY: What did he share that stuck with you?
POWER: Oh, he was extraordinary. So I was really having a hard time at this point. I was having nightmares every night. And it seemed like the more I was thinking about myself, the more I hated myself. And I got into this taxi. And he just asked me, how are you? And I found myself saying, I feel like I'm going crazy. And he didn't balk. You know, he just said, why is that then?
And, I mean, this is a 60-something London taxi driver. I thought he would have absolutely no clue what I was talking about. But he did. He just seemed to get it. And he said, so you've been digging deep then? And I said, I have. And he said, it's like layers of an onion. You keep peeling each one off, and you feel like you're coming apart. And I started crying then. And he told me, you're touching the void, and you need to step back now and be normal for a while. Go to the cinema. Walk in the park. You know, stop doing this for a while.
And it was him who actually said, you should go and speak to someone. And it was after that that I did take a break and went to a therapist and managed to limp my way through the end of the project. But it was extraordinary. It was one of those conversations that I feel like I made it up, except for when I got home, my flatmate opened the door, and she was like, were you kissing the taxi driver? You were out there for an hour...
KELLY: ...Because we'd parked up for an hour in this intense conversation.
POWER: Well, so anyway, I'm very grateful to him. I never found out his name. But he's one of my favorite moments from that year because, yeah, the kindness of strangers can be just as healing as a book.
KELLY: Your final chapter is titled "So Does Self-Help, Well, Help?" What's the verdict?
POWER: It probably didn't help me in the ways that I thought it was gonna help me. But it helped in a much deeper and better way than I was expecting, which is - I honestly did learn by the end that I didn't have to improve myself or change myself. I just needed to accept myself. And human beings are messy. And we have good days, and we have bad days. And actually I know myself so well that I'm like, you know, quite over myself now, which makes me a much, you know, nicer person in the world. I'm more interested in other people. So, yeah, it didn't give me what I thought I wanted, but it did - to quote the Rolling Stones - give me what I needed.
KELLY: Well, Marianne Power, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking to us.
POWER: Thank you.
KELLY: Marianne Power, her new book is "Help Me!: One Woman's Quest To Find Out If Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I saw her today at the reception, a glass of wine in her hand. I knew she was going to meet her connection. At her feet was a footloose man. You can't always get what you want. You can't always get what you want.
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